Texas Mission 2014 – The Road Home

The end of any mission trip is always a mixed blessing.  There is the sense of loss – we’re leaving our newly-discovered rhythms of life together, saying goodbye to people we’ve shared significant time and stories with, and thinking about what waits for us at home in terms of unfinished projects, unanswered mail, and general life.  On the other hand, after a week or so, sleeping in a “real” bed and being with the people who normally populate our worlds starts to sound pretty appealing, too.

When we’ve finished our work in the Rio Grande Valley, we’re in for a long journey home.  We drive to San Antonio, which usually takes about five hours.  One traditional marker is the checkpoint in Falfurrias, which allows us to get a glimpse into the operations of our Border Patrol.  It has become tradition to track the amount of contraband posted outside the zone.

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We also take advantage of the ride to look for wildlife – most notably a zebra that lives on one of the ranches near Alice, TX.  But this year was stripe less…no zebra to be found.  A few birds, though:

Gold-fronted Woodpecker

Gold-fronted Woodpecker

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Once in San Antonio, we spend the night, we look at the Alamo, stroll the Riverwalk, and pack.  This year, we reconnected with our old friend Matt Fricker.  Matt was a seminarian at Crafton Heights and The Open Door, and is now the Youth Director for a LARGE church in San Antonio.  His congregation has space for rent that beats the downtown hotel prices, and so we met up with Matt and his daughter, Emma.

Your CHUP 2014 Adult Mission Team in front of an old building on which we did no work, and to which we inflicted no damage!

Your CHUP 2014 Adult Mission Team in front of an old building on which we did no work, and to which we inflicted no damage!

With Matt and Emma Fricker

With Matt and Emma Fricker

The Riverwalk is a great place to enjoy new sights and sounds and for people of all ages to play a little bit!

The Riverwalk is a great place to enjoy new sights and sounds and for people of all ages to play a little bit!

We chose a dining spot based on the availability of a challenge to which several of our men felt the need to respond: eating a two pound hamburger with a mountain of fries and onion rings.  If the eater is “successful”, the meal is free and he would receive a new t-shirt and have his photo posted on the wall.  Alas, although Sean and Steve attempted to rise to the occasion, they were unable to bring it home and will thus be traveling in their old clothes today – no new wardrobe!

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The bottom line, though, is the fact that this group of men and women spent some wonderful and quality time together; we encountered the body of Christ in three very different congregations, we served and received service, and we know something more about joy, about faithfulness, and about life together.  We are grateful for the opportunities that we’ve shared and eager to share the ways we’ve grown with the folks in Pittsburgh.

Texas Mission 2014 – Day Four

At some point in the history of the early church, there seemed to be some conflict caused by who might get credit for what in the grand scheme of things.  Writing to the Corinthians, Paul sought to defuse that particular time bomb:

After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply God’s servants, by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do: I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who made the plant grow. The one who plants and the one who waters really do not matter. It is God who matters, because he makes the plant grow. There is no difference between the one who plants and the one who waters; God will reward each one according to the work each has done. For we are partners working together for God, and you are God’s field. (I Cor 3:5-9, GNT)

Our fourth day on the job was an exercise in remembering that we are all in this together.  By the time we got to the home that will be occupied by Angelica and her seven children, a group from one community in Texas had already laid the foundation and built the walls.  Another group, from a vastly different community, had gathered to begin to paint the outside.  And we, in our foolishness, thought we might “finish” the place.

Fat chance.

Oh, we did great things – the walls are all up and taped.  Electrical sockets and switches are in, as are most of the plumbing fixtures, kitchen cabinets, and a lot of other bells and whistles.  But “done”? Nope.  Someone else is going to have to put the finish coat of drywall mud down, and lay the carpeting, and connect the sewage drains.

But it’s ok.  That family is one step closer to the freedom of a new home, and we got to help.  That’s something.  Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, once said, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving.”

And that’s what we did this week.  We shared in the loving – we extended some of ourselves, to be sure.  But we were treated royally – by a congregation that welcomed us into their building with amazing hospitality and more grapefruit than we know what to do with; by another congregation that invited us to worship and dine with them tonight in a feast of spiritual and physical food that lasted until 10 pm; by a young widow who doesn’t speak English, but who shared the fruit from the tree in her garden because we asked to try it; by her children who wanted just to play a little soccer…

Here are some images of the good life in Texas from today.  There are stories behind them, but it’s after midnight and we’ve got more to do in the morning.

My specialty today was taping drywall corners on ceilings.  At least no one dripped anything on me!

My specialty today was taping drywall corners on ceilings. At least no one dripped anything on me!

Joe and Bob hung the doors for the bedrooms and the bathrooms and installed the privacy hardware.

Joe and Bob hung the doors for the bedrooms and the bathrooms and installed the privacy hardware.

Lindsay gets another tutorial from the electrical guru, complete with visual aids on the wall.

Lindsay gets another tutorial from the electrical guru, complete with visual aids on the wall.

What's that? A loggerhead shrike right outside the window? Put down the drywall knife Dave, and grab the camera...

What’s that? A loggerhead shrike right outside the window? Put down the drywall knife Dave, and grab the camera…

The kitchen/living area, as "done" as we could do it.

The kitchen/living area, as “done” as we could do it.

The hallway to the back door, the bath, and the rear bedroom.

The hallway to the back door, the bath, and the rear bedroom.

Angelica and five of her children. And no, Steve, you can't keep the puppy, even if it does follow you home.

Angelica and five of her children. And no, Steve, you can’t keep the puppy, even if it does follow you home.

The group in our "home" church of First Presbyterian, Mission TX

The group in our “home” church of First Presbyterian, Mission TX

Leading worship with Pastor Danny translating at the Solomon's Porch Thursday night worship service.

Leading worship with Pastor Danny translating at the Solomon’s Porch Thursday night worship service.

Texas Mission 2014 – Day Three

You have probably seen the series of commercials featuring “normal people” who find themselves in unusual circumstances, but it’s OK because they stayed in a particular hotel the previous night.  Here’s an example:

So here’s what happened today:

I was in the house hanging drywall and Bob came in and said, “Dave, can you come out and be a translator?”

In reflecting on this event later, I don’t know which I think is more incredible: that Bob thought I actually spoke Spanish well enough to fulfill the need, or that I actually put down my tools and went out there “to help”.

Know this, beloved reader: I do not speak Spanish.  Not even un poquito.  But hey, I’m Dave Carver.  I’m Pastor Dave, for crying out loud.  You need me to help you order in a Mexican restaurant, and you’re outta luck.  Need directions while traveling in Madrid?  Don’t ask me.  But here, on a mission trip in Texas, dealing with a homeowner who knows no English?  I’ll be right there.

Joe said later, “I couldn’t believe he asked you, and then I couldn’t believe you went.  So I went out there, not because I thought I could help, but because I was sure something really interesting was about to happen.”

Here’s what happened: Bob asked me the question in English.  I turned to her, and with a slight accent and maybe an usted thrown in there, repeated the question, in English, to her.  She shook her head like I was a lunatic.  I tried again.  A little more accent.  A little more S-L-O-W-L-Y.  Finally, Sean handed me his smart phone and we used the translation app.

I share that story because it illustrates anew for me the ugly side of mission and mission trips.  I am not normally an arrogant, overconfident person.  But put me in the right spot, and I can be a real jerk.  Sometimes, when we arrange trips to serve others in different contexts, the process brings us to the point where we find it easy to indulge in arrogance, escapism, paternalism, rescuing behavior, or any of a number of other unproductive (or even worse) practices that belittle, rather than serve and honor, those with whom we work.  Bob Lupton explores this concept admirably in his book, Toxic Charity.  We are not going to do much, if anything, on this trip to right the wrongs that have created a society in which it seems acceptable for a young widow to live with seven children in a trailer that most folk reading this story would not allow their dog to sleep in.  That is a huge, seismic shift in the globe.  It ain’t gonna happen here, and it ain’t gonna happen this week.

Fortunately, we are not here, primarily, to change houses.  We are here to do these things:

1. Encourage our partners – to walk alongside First Presbyterian Church of MissionSolomon’s Porch, and the members of Port Lavaca First United Methodist Church.  Sometimes, when someone from outside notices what you are doing, that makes it easier to do it.  We are here to notice.

2. Model the body of Christ to a small group of people who can see who and what we are doing.  We’re trying to do this with the family  in whose home we are guests this week.

3. Most importantly, we are here to change US.  To nurture those places in our spirits where we are most likely to be able to follow Jesus faithfully.  To guard against those enemies that seek to contort us into prideful and selfish people.  To engage in a pattern of reflective and grateful living that allows us to  grow into people who are so upset by the ugliness and sin in the world that we are willing to give of our time, our energy, and ourselves significantly over the long haul in order to make a difference somewhere, somehow.

I am a lousy translator.  When it comes to hanging drywall, I’m iffy at best.  And you don’t really want me messing with the electric.  But because of the number of chances I’ve had to be in places like this, I’m a pretty good noticer.  And usually, a fair cheerleader.  And I’m learning to be a giver and a listener.  Because of the places where I’ve found God at work…like a dusty road in the corner of one of the poorest places in the USA where nobody speaks English…and where that’s not the most important thing.

Pray for continued transformation, my friends… in me; in the members of this team; for the members of this family; for our partner churches; and for this world.

And here are a few photos of what we actually did today!

Marla and Joe work on installing one of the final pieces of drywall - we finished hanging all the board today!

Marla and Joe work on installing one of the final pieces of drywall – we finished hanging all the board today!

Gabe and Bob work on installing the fixtures in the new bathroom!

Gabe and Bob work on installing the fixtures in the new bathroom!

Lindsay helps prepare the kitchen cabinets for their final installation.

Lindsay helps prepare the kitchen cabinets for their final installation.

Chris prepares the frame to receive the bedroom door.

Chris prepares the frame to receive the bedroom door.

Sean dreams about the day when his modeling career will finally take flight...

Sean is talking to his agent about the next steps for his fledgling modeling career…

The kids have been hanging around since school let out, and here we get to invite them into their new home!

The kids have been hanging around since school let out, and here we get to invite them into their new home!

Napoleon Bonaparte said, "An army marches on its stomach." Mike and Joe have taken great delight in keeping us moving and motivated, today with chicken cutlets, asparagus, and macaroni and cheese.  To. Die. For.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Mike and Joe have taken great delight in keeping us moving and motivated, today with chicken cutlets, asparagus, and macaroni and cheese. To. Die. For.

Texas Mission 2014: Day 2

The second day of mission trips is often marked by an amazing burst of energy and hard work. Today was no exception, as the team was up early and we worked hard to do the tasks in front of us.  There are not a lot of photos of the work, because, frankly, Steve screwing in drywall on Tuesday looks a lot like Steve screwing the drywall in on Monday.  He smells worse on the second day, but you don’t have the scratch ‘n sniff feature on your iPhone.  So trust me, we worked.

We also grew in our ability to be with and for each other and the world in community.

For instance… Marla and Sean in particular took great delight in helping us establish a little rapport with some of the children who will be living in “our” house.  Staying later in the day meant that we were home as they got off the bus and came walking in the drive…and were still around when they came out to play.

For instance… After the long work day, everyone wanted to go and explore the region immediately close to the border.  That meant about 45 more minutes in the van together…and a chance to meet some friendly Border Patrol Officers who reminded us (me) that the dirt road on which we were driving was probably not really 15-passenger-van-friendly (and, frankly, illegal…).  It meant seeing the border “fence” and talking about what walls did and did not do.  It meant stopping at the La Lomita (“little hill”) Chapel, built in 1865 and enjoying the tranquility of that place.

For instance… Mike and Joe brought us together for an amazing meal of brisket tacos and spicy beans – a time that was rich in laughter and celebration as we considered all that we’d seen today.

For instance…we ended our evening as we typically have this trip – by sitting in a circle and reacting to some of the humor and insight provided by the good people of Coffee With Jesus, an online comic strip that reveals the hope and the humor of the church.  Each of us is using a comic strip as a launching pad into consideration of our own spiritual journeys.  We have spent time each night in study and discussion of Nehemiah and his efforts to rebuild and renew the community to which he was called.

It was an amazingly good day.  Thanks for your thoughts and prayers.  Here are a few images….

Yesterday, these walls did not exist; today, they are taped!

Yesterday, these walls did not exist; today, they are taped!

Chris has spent much of the past two days touching up and retouching the paint… He's taken the brunt of the heat and this place looks great!

Chris has spent much of the past two days touching up and retouching the paint… He’s taken the brunt of the heat and this place looks great!

The kitchen area is coming together...

The kitchen area is coming together…

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Sean thought he was "taking it easy" on the kids…until we learned that they were taking it easy on him!

Sean thought he was “taking it easy” on the kids…until we learned that they were taking it easy on him!

Christopher...

Christopher…

Ryan...

Ryan…

Marissa (I think…)

Maritza

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The Vermillion Flycatcher was keeping watch at the chapel.

The Vermillion Flycatcher was keeping watch at the chapel.

Chowing down on some amazing food!

Chowing down on some amazing food!

Joe & Mike made awesome "leftover" tacos - brisket, cheese, salad, and the fixin's.  Wow.  Just, wow.

Joe & Mike made awesome “leftover” tacos – brisket, cheese, salad, and the fixin’s. Wow. Just, wow.

Texas Mission – The 2014 Work Begins

Monday marked the beginning of the work portion of our mission in Mission.  Our team of eleven Pittsburghers joined hosts in Mission, TX and began working on a home north of Mission.  This three bedroom home will be the new dwelling for a family of eight.  The mom is a widow who is raising her seven children, several of which are children with special needs.  The First United Methodist Church in Port Lavaca, TX, is sponsoring this home but they did not have the opportunity to finish the work in “their” week – and we are blessed with the opportunity to assist in the completion of the work.

Monday’s tasks were mostly sheetrock-related, with a little plumbing and electrical work thrown in for good measure.  The group continued to grow in our ability to enjoy each other even as many of us were learning new skills and facing new challenges.  

The weather is amazingly great thus far, and we are still enjoying the copious amounts of food provided by our hosts from First Presbyterian Church of Mission.

Here are some images from Day One on the job!  If you’d like to see them a little bigger, just click on the photo and it will enlarge.  Thanks for your prayers!

This trailer has been the home for the family for several years.  Believe it or not, one of their relatives has asked if it's possible to live in it after the new house (the blue one on the left) is finished.

This trailer has been the home for the family for several years. Believe it or not, one of their relatives has asked if it’s possible to live in it after the new house (the blue one on the left) is finished.

This is the interior of the house as it was left by the building crew from the Port Lavaca church.

This is the interior of the house as it was left by the building crew from the Port Lavaca church.

The Port Lavaca church made these trusses and brought them down to the Valley.  Prior to that, the congregation was invited to share a prayer with the owners of the new home.

The Port Lavaca church made these trusses and brought them down to the Valley. Prior to that, the congregation was invited to share a prayer with the owners of the new home.

Joe and Chris unloading sheetrock - we carried in 60 today, and hung about 40.

Joe and Chris unloading sheetrock – we carried in 60 today, and hung about 40.

Mike, Joe, and Steve spent most of the day hanging the ceiling.  Here, I'm trying not to get in their way.

Mike, Joe, and Steve spent most of the day hanging the ceiling. Here, I’m trying not to get in their way.

Laura hanging board.

Laura hanging board.

Lindsay asked Gabe if he would teach her a little bit about working with the electric system.  This is lesson 1.

Lindsay asked Gabe if he would teach her a little bit about working with the electric system. This is lesson 1.

Sean is taking care of business in the rafters.

Sean is taking care of business in the rafters.

Bob puts the finishing touches on a new water heater (in this climate, you can keep them outdoors).

Bob puts the finishing touches on a new water heater (in this climate, you can keep them outdoors).

The fastest hammer in Texas…it's just a blur when my arm gets swinging!

The fastest hammer in Texas…it’s just a blur when my arm gets swinging!

Marla makes a new friend.

Marla makes a new friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission In Mission – Year 5!

For the fifth year in a row, folks  from the Crafton Heights Church are privileged to travel to Mission, TX for an Adult Mission Experience.  In recent years, we have formed partnerships with The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Church in San Juan.  This year, we will work with these groups to finish a home that was begun by the First United Methodist Church of Port Lavaca, TX a couple of months ago.  More about the work and that aspect of the mission tomorrow.

A long morning in Atlanta...

A long morning in Atlanta…

For starters, we had to GET to Mission.  In every other year, that’s not been a problem.  However, leaving Pittsburgh in a snowstorm necessitated a de-icing procedure that stretched to nearly two hours…which means that we missed our connecting flight out of Atlanta, which means that we arrived in San Antonio five and a half hours after we anticipated…Leaving San Antonio, we encountered a horrific accident on I-37 that closed the roadway to traffic and cost us a little better than an hour.

Hey…that guy in the middle looks familiar!

Hey…that guy in the middle looks familiar!

We quickly forgot about that, however, when we stumbled upon the Crossroads Bar-B-Que in the little town of Alice, TX.  We were greeted by the owners, who prayed with us and celebrated our safe arrival in Texas and served us an amazing plate of food.  We also met a local celebrity while there!

IMG_6950On Sunday, we worshiped with the early service at the Presbyterian Church, and then visited the later service at Solomon’s Porch.  We heard two encouraging, challenging, thought-provoking and direct sermons on “loving our neighbors” and “coming together in Christ”.   We sang some songs we knew, and learned others; much of the second service was conducted in Spanish; and both congregations made an effort to send us on our way with food and drink!  The fellowship was warm and worship was a blessing.

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The shy Green Jay poses at Santa Ana

One of the most important things about the first on-site day in Texas is getting acclimated as a team to each other and to our environs.  One of the best places to do so in this area is at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge which sits right along the Rio Grande River and the Mexican Border.  For several hours this afternoon, we had the chance to break into smaller groups, or even sit alone for a while (we were together in cramped quarters for a loooooooong time yesterday) in the beauty of a cloudless sky and 82° temperatures.  Yes, “suffering for the Lord” never felt so good.  We wandered the trails, sat by the ponds and appreciated the gift of warmth and life.

Some of the wildlife at the refuge was pretty amazing!

Some of the wildlife at the refuge was pretty amazing!

Everyone is healthy, the “chemistry of the company” appears to be in fine shape, and we are eager to see what God has for us tomorrow.

 

 

 

With the Rio Grande and Mexico in the background.

With the Rio Grande and Mexico in the background.

Texas Wildflowers

Texas Wildflowers

 

What’s Your Kryptonite?

On February 2, 2014 the saints at Crafton Heights walked through the third and final installment of the Samson story (see the two previous entries for the beginning and middle of this saga).  Our scriptures included excerpts from Judges 16 (below)  and Hebrews 12:1-3

superman_kryptonite11_138My hunch is that anyone who grew up in the USA in the 20th century knows something about what kryptonite is.  Superman, as we all know, was born on the planet Krypton, and miraculously made his way to Earth.  As he grew, he discovered that his body interacted with the elements of our planet in such a way so as to give him super powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a mighty locomotive, and so on.  Yet when Lex Luthor or anyone else brings some fragment of Superman’s home planet into his presence, those powers evaporate and Superman is rendered ineffectual.

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson is about as close to Superman as anyone in the book of Judges.  And if you’ve been here the past two weeks, you’ve heard me say that I think that much of Samson’s life was wasted in the pursuit of selfish gratification, and that Samson was, in my opinion, a petty man who failed to lead Israel into faith, and instead acted exactly like the Philistine overlords from whom he was called to deliver Israel.   Last week, we ended with the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years “in the days of the Philistines.”

Chapter 16, the last chapter of Samson’s life, opens with a rather pedestrian story about the chosen leader of God’s people taking the red-eye over to Philistine territory so that he can meet up with one of their prostitutes. The folks at Philistine Immigration call him out, and in a superhuman feat of strength, Samson tears out the doors of the city gate and carries them halfway home, thus wounding their pride and leaving them with a large gap in their public-works budget.  It is an account of an incident that is thrown into our narrative so that we, and the Philistines, will know that Samson is still Samson.  Twenty years have come and gone, but he’s still ridiculously strong and apparently insatiable.

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

And then we get to “the main event” in Samson’s life – the part of the story with which we, and Hollywood, are most familiar.  Samson and Delilah – an epic love story.  If by “love story” you mean that he was vain and lustful and eager to use her to his own ends and that she was greedy and willing to sell out Samson for cash on the nail.  Yeah, it’s a real romance, all right.

The narrative unfolds with a rather curious game in which Samson and Delilah engage in a series of lies and deceits to each other.  We might call it “guess my secret”, wherein Samson’s secret is the source of his strength and Delilah’s secret is that she doesn’t really give a hoot about Samson, but only the silver pieces that the Philistines have promised her.

Three times, she comes to him at her sultry best, and pouts, and says, “Come on, big guy, don’t you love me?  Tell me what makes you so big and brave and handsome…”  He tells her that he can’t be tied up with fresh bowstrings or with new ropes, or that if his hair were tightly braided, he’d be out of luck.  With each round of this game, Samson is the apparent “winner”, as he gets to kiss the pretty girl (and, presumably, spend a significant amount of time in other pursuits with her) and she receives only lies.  But finally, after days of pestering, round four brings us a different result.  Listen for the Word of God in Judges 16:

Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16:15-19)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Do you see – for Samson, it really is a game.  As an observer, you might think, “Why in the world would he tell her what keeps him strong?”  But the truth is that he had long ago stopped believing that his strength and power were gifts from God. He saw that tremendous strength as something that was simply his by right.  After all, we have noticed that there are three aspects to the vow of the Nazirite: no shaving or hair cutting, nothing to do with grapes, and not becoming unclean by contact with the dead.  For decades, Samson has been blithely ignoring two of those rules – he’s the host at several and the guest at many drinking parties, and he is never far from something or someone who is dead.

Here, he tells Delilah about the Nazirite vows, but it’s just another round in the game.  He tells her about these things the way that my dad told me about Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny.

We see this borne out in Samson’s response to the situation in verse 20:

Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. (Judges 16:20)

For him, it’s business as usual: “I’ll just get back to my old self here and…what the heck?!?!”  He found that he was as weak as any other middle-aged man who had been lulled to sleep in the arms of a mercenary, yet beautiful female spy…that is to say, he found that he was helpless.

We know that in the case of Superman, it’s kryptonite that causes the loss of his strength. So for Samson, it’s the hair, right?

Wrong. Samson loses his power because he has finally succumbed to the pride, the self-reliance, and the sense of invulnerability with which he has flirted his entire life.  His hair is an outward sign of an inward reality – and the truth is that Samson had long ago stopped believing in the mystical power of his flowing locks…and instead, relied on himself and taken that strength as his due.

For Superman, it’s kryptonite.  For Samson, it’s pride.  What is there in your world that saps your strength and leads you from God’s best in the world?

For some of us, it’s a fear of being known.  Every day, we look at ourselves in the mirror before leaving the house and as we pat down our hair one last time, we think, “OK, looking good. Keep up a good front, because if they found out what I was really like, then I’d be in trouble.”  We say and do this because so many of us are deeply dissatisfied with who we are, but we are not sure how to change…and so we hide behind an image or a mask or a job… We hide from others, we hide from ourselves, and we even try to hide from God.

And when we spend so much energy hiding from God or from each other or even from ourselves, then there’s not much left for seeking God’s best or for acting it out.  This fear will kill us.

Some of us struggle with the burden of regret.  Every hour of every day, we are reminded of some secret guilt that gnaws away at us.  We think of promises that we’ve broken, or angry outbursts directed towards those we love, or choices that we made an hour, a month, or a lifetime ago, and discover that they make for a debilitating load.  Regret is like a sack full of stones that we feel obliged to carry everywhere… it just gets heavier and heavier, and sooner or later, it’s just easier to not try to go anywhere at all, but to stay home, inside, and dwell in the land of “I wish I had never…” or “If only…”  This kind of regret is a waste of energy, emotion, and life.

The despicable twin of regret is the demon of worry about the future.  We look ahead, and of course, we can’t see everything very clearly.  So we become paralyzed, and are unable to move.  We think, “How can I do this, when that might happen tomorrow?  This may be a silly example, but perhaps you can relate:  when I started the tenth grade at Concord High School, I was seized with despair.  Here I was in a whole new system, a new place, with a new hierarchy, set of expectations, and opportunities. And what paralyzed me was the fact that I knew that I’d only be there 3 years.  Well, given my academic prowess, I should say that I hoped I’d only be there three years.  Why should I make friends, why should I try anything, why should I even care when I know that it’s all going to disappear in 3 years?  It all seemed so futile.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson.  Coincidence? Hmmmm.  Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I'm holding in my hands.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson. Coincidence? Hmmmm. Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I’m holding in my hands.

Fortunately for me, a band teacher and a youth group advisor told me that I was being an idiot (in nice, kind, Jesus-y language) and suggested that I enjoy the life that God gave me.  And I did. And I have.  And whereas I went into high school sure that there was no value in making friendships, I actually went on a few dates with a gal named Sharon McCoy that wound up changing my mind about that…

My point is that we know what it means to be surrounded by the worry, regret, or fear that seeks to render us powerless.  None of us comes from Krypton, but all of us know something that would drain the life from us if we let it.  So how do we deal with it?

Back to Samson.  What happened after his shearing and capture?

Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. (Judges 16:21-22)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Did you ever think about the stuff that is and isn’t in the Bible?  We never hear about any of Jesus’ hobbies, for instance. Nobody bothered to write down whether the Apostle Paul kept any pets.  But here, someone thinks it’s important that we know that Samson’s hair started to grow after it was shaved.

Really?  Doesn’t all hair do that?  Isn’t it one of the properties of hair?  Why do we need to know that?  I’ll tell you why it’s not there – it’s not a teaser for the reader, so that we can say, “Ha, ha, those Philistines are so stupid, they don’t know that the source of his strength is his hair.  Go ahead, Samson.  Sneak up on ‘em.  Grow that hair.”  No, the faithful reader knows that Samson’s strength is from God, not his hairstyle.

The author of Judges includes that sentence because it’s a way of acknowledging that the Philistines believed that they had won.  Of course they noticed his hair growing, but they didn’t care, because they believed that he was no longer a Nazirite.  Not only did they believe that Samson had been vanquished for good, but that the God of the Israelites, YHWH, was as good as dead, too.  We see that in the worship service that they organize in the temple of their god, Dagon:

Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,

“Our god has delivered our enemy
 into our hands,
 the one who laid waste our land
 and multiplied our slain.”

While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16:23-25)

In a kind of reverse “Minute for Mission”, Samson comes out and offers the crowd “proof” that Dagon has defeated YHWH.

And then, something happens.  Samson finally gets it.  After a lifetime of being proud and arrogant and fierce and stubborn and godless, he is humbled and abused and blinded and mocked.  And he finds himself in the arena of the god who opposes YHWH, the very center of the shrine to all that he has been called to oppose.  And the once-proud and mighty warrior speaks quietly to the slave who is charged with leading him around:

When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. (Judges 16:26-27)

He feels the weight of his own decisions and behavior.  For the second time in his life that we know of, Samson cries out to God.

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)

Samson dies in an act of self-sacrifice.  He is strengthened – not because his hair grew back, but because God’s call is for always.  Do you remember when the angel showed up to old Manoah and his wife?  He told the couple that the as yet unborn child would be a Nazirite.  “…for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (13:7)

As badly as he had blown it, time and time again, Samson could not escape God’s grace.  God had said that he would be blessed until the day he died, and he found that strength on that day.

This is a tragic end to a horrible story.  I know in the last few weeks I have been pretty rough on Samson.  I am troubled by his story because he could have chosen otherwise – but in the end, he deals with his demons in death the same way he did in life – with violence and destruction.

Beloved, you know fear.  You know regret.  You know worry.

Can you – can we – lay these things aside and cling to the good to which Christ calls us?  Can we choose to live as those who are endowed with superpowers – the gifts of trust, and forgiveness, and hope?

baptismYou are no better, and you are no worse, than Samson.  The things that derailed him can derail you and me – and will, if we give them half a chance.  Samson wound up killing himself as he fought his pride and pettiness and selfishness.  But you and I can claim our baptism and say, “Yes, I have already died to fear, regret, worry, and anything else that weakens me and gets in the way of the peace, faithfulness, and obedience to which I am called.”  You don’t have to live with the kryptonite.  And you don’t have to kill yourself.  We can lean into God’s grace for this day – forgetting about yesterday and trusting for tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.